Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Guest Writer: Peter McNiff

Anger Management

                         There’s a rocket in my pocket
                         Play it cool boy, play it cool....
                         —Stephen Sondheim West Side Story

My friends tell me I am much too serious and you know, I think they are right. I need to lighten up a little, stop thinking about all those bad things we are doing to each other, you know, us having all the jobs and taking all the profits from those other countries that we keep wrecking.
So, I made my mind up I’m going to be positive, rid myself of those negative thoughts about people dying of starvation, murders, drug cartels, police and political corruption, soldiers coming home in coffins; and as for those among them who lost their legs or arms, or brains, fighting for me and you because that’s, well, downbeat right?
I need only to think of the freedom I have, the space, the sea, the mountains, the good air I have to breathe, and the fact that where I live I can write and photograph just about any damn thing that pleases me. I can sit here on this park bench and write poetry or cross the street to that fine bank with its marble walls and daub it with graffiti and nobody will shoot me because I live in a democracy, thanks to all the good cops, politicians and soldiers, and civilian men and women who in times past put their lives on the line for me. Well, yes and for you, too, I suppose but I know you don’t want to talk about that. So, let’s not dwell on their suffering for too long — when for example, one of them takes a bullet in the face, or steps on an APM. We don’t ever want to think about that.
Nice — nice abbreviation there, don’t you think? APM, it keeps the horror of its real meaning tucked neatly out of sight, all wrapped in a soft acronym, hiding what it really is, an anti personnel mine, a bomb that just sits there waiting for you to step on it and then boom it blows you into little pieces. Or if not you, an innocent on the way to market to sell a few vegetables, or a child or a woman and child or an entire family—but there I go again. I mean, I must be positive and think of the jobs created in the manufacturing sector from making munitions that blow up human beings, towns, cities and continents, like those ingenious fragmentation phosphorous bombs and armour piercing shells that can punch holes through concrete and ricochet around the inside if a armoured tank, or maybe someone’s private house, wrecking things, furniture, ornaments, school books, family photographs while killing the living in them, grandma, mama, papa, brothers, sisters, and maybe leaving just one family individual to remember the dreadfulness of it all. Oh, and the cat, the shelling missed the cat, so that’s OK. That’s good.
Yes, I must be more optimistic and think of the profits that go into corporate pockets and arms dealers’ wallets and the backhanders that are paid to the people to induce them to buy this warhead over that warhead, this chopper over that chopper. That must be delightful, right? Spreading the largesse around?
Later, not much later, downstream are stationed all the other private companies with their safety nets, the sub contractors who handle the ancillaries like security, drugs, wheelchairs, coffins, insurance, and so on and so forth, all focussed on picking up the pieces and so having employment and a few dollars in their pockets to buy a meal and enjoy a DVD or a Superman comic.
Really, I do need to listen to my friends more when they talk about football and movies and books because this will get me right back on track. I shall talk about something happy and fragrant, like flowers for instance but without mentioning the blooms they put on coffins or the wreathes they lay on the graves of dead soldiers and dead peace-making civil servants and journalists shot up in the name of the Fourth Estate.
Another thing, I must resolve to stop going to the airport to salute the poor bastards they bring home in wheelchairs and on stretchers, and crack down on my impulse to expose what is going on by writing it up and expect big headlines and double-page spreads in newspapers and magazines that I used to write for. Because enough is enough, it is too sickening. It might offend the readers, not to mention advertisers. I mean we don’t want messy stories with gory pictures about the maimed and the dead, anymore than we need to keep going on and on reminding ourselves of the losses and cost to families and to the budgets of the nations involved, when it will all be taken care of in the future by our grandchildren’s great-grandchildren who will inherit all our wisdom and live forever in peace? Right?

Which reminds me, I got some good advice from an editor recently who made his name as a fashion writer and gossip columnist, before he made it in the big-time: “If we must place those awful pictures of the wounded and starving refugees adjacent to our glossy corporate brand names, once a year might be fine, say, around Christmas and Thanksgiving when the advertising is down a tad. It is all very well to remind ourselves about such matters occasionally but, the economy being in the state it is in, we need the commercials. Any of you who feel compunction towards this kind of material, edit the stuff tightly and slip it inside, towards the back of the journal with the horoscope. Say, ten lines and we can lose it in a single column between the big display ads. And then we can salve our consciences and the conscience of our readers all in one, right?”
“Thanks, Ed. No, really, thanks very much — ‘chop it all up and boil it down’ — got that. And if you like, I will just print the dog in the picture; I mean a dog’s eyes are symbolic enough, are they not? And you can, like, airbrush out the blood on the doorstep?”
“I like your attitude. It’s good. Advertisers appreciate when we do this for them because they come right back with even bigger commercials. You wait and see. They want self-censorship — they’ve come to the right place.”

From now on I am going to focus on wholesome things like porridge and rice pudding, salads and beefburgers and write passionately about delicious recipes, arts and crafts and sod the poor and the bleeders.
Already I can feel the change coming over me, just as my psychotherapist said it would. I mean I actually feel lighter, as if the town sewerage works just relieved itself. Really, my feet are not sticky any more.
From now on I am going to concentrate on things that make me laugh. All I have to do is close my eyes and think of other things. Think of nothingness. Make my mind a complete blank. But...I can still hear the gunfire and the rumble of tanks and sordid pictures flood into my mind of children with bloated bellies and flies crawling out of their mouths.
Wait, I think some one’s coming this way....I’ll ask this man.
“Oh, Sir, excuse me, Sir. If you wouldn’t mind, Sir, could you just place those pieces of cardboard over my head?  Thanks, that’s great. No, I don’t need your money; give that to the guy over there with the crazy look in his eyes. And, Sir — would you mind covering the rest of my torso with the copy of the Wall Street Journal you have in your hand. That would give me a bit of class and thank you, Sir. I think it’s going to be frosty tonight.”
Now I don’t have to look at anything, I can lie out here with the homeless and destitute and the drug addicted and the vets who came back from Vietnam, whenever that was and still they are rolling around in wheelchairs. They may look as if they are home, but really, I know for a fact that white haired guy over there is still stuck in a trench in the Tet Offensive.
On the bright side, they were all children once, innocent with age and now they have lots of new friends for company home from Iraq and Afghanistan who have lost their childhood, too, and can share memories about the war with their buddies in the public library on the worst days of winter.
“Oh, and, Sir — excuse me, Sir, before you go, would you just reach out and toggle the switch on my laptop, otherwise it will just go on and on churning and I know how sick and tired all my friends are with this stuff.”
I get so tired myself these days, because there is not a damn thing I can do except write and take photographs of the people around me who sleep in doorways and park benches, people whose anger was once a given.
“Yes, Sir, that’s the button you have your finger on just hit the swit—“

© Peter McNiff 2010

Peter McNiff, current affairs producer based in Ireland, independent documentary film maker and web designer; short fiction broadcast by RTE and BBC; included in short story anthologies published by Heinemann (London) and Phoenix (London).  Has a Jacobs Award for television work; a Hennessy/Irish Press/New Irish Writing award; Cultural Person of the Year (2004) in his home town Greystones, Co. Wicklow.


  1. Ouch. This makes me feel so inadequate - I KNOW about the advertising, the bandwagon, the public aversion but I don't have the articulacy, the words or - I admit it - the passion that you have, and your words make me ashamed, on my behalf and on society's behalf. Thank you Peter for making me see, see so vividly by your words of incisiveness and insight.

  2. So tightly conveyed Peter-what we all don't want to see- a One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest moment of self-medication

  3. The pasteboard box head and body wrapped in scraps from the Journal make me think of a strange, new, and disposable Tin Man. The heart is not missing. It is just turned off, and waiting. But for what and for how long?

  4. This is powerful in so many ways. I wish everyone could read it and realize we don't have it so bad. Thank you.

  5. Sometimes a mirror is needed to be held up to our society, to reflect the things that are marjinalised and held to the periphery.
    Adam B

  6. You hit my button, Peter. I clung to the surviving cat for as long as I could then... You opened my eyes by telling me to close them. Pure genius.

  7. Peter, I long to know you. This is outstanding.

  8. I've been thinking for a week about what to say about this piece, Peter. It affected me. I'm a veteran with questions about what the hell is going on in the world. Your piece here seemed to sum-up those feelings of confusion perfectly. It is a beautiful way to make your point. Thank you.

  9. Peter, when you submitted The Dogs of San Francisco and this piece to share with us here, I was torn, as you know, over which to post first. I liked both for different reasons. I have a feeling Anger Management will be the more popular with my students for its gritty and encompassing outlook. It's not subtle by any means, and yet it has your signature literary feel. I still love both pieces, and am very thankful you gave us a first peek at them. May they both find homes between nice warm bookjackets. Now, go and do your Renaissance Man thing, and don't forget to stop by and let us know where we can find your other stuff. Best of luck, Michael


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